Pocket watches have been around for 700 years and are highly prized collectibles today. The first examples date back to early fourteenth century Europe.
An era that could be considered the pinnacle of pocket watches began in late 17th century England. During that time, England created more pocket watches than the rest of the world combined. These watches were created with the first balance springs, driven by a chain or Fusee movement and typically housed in what is called a paired case, or a case inside a case. They were wound and set with a key in cases that were most often sterling and sometimes gold, rarely other metals.
Today, watches of this era are quite plentiful in today’s collectors market and most silver examples are relatively inexpensive with prices starting at a few hundred dollars. Very important historical watches can be found in this category. One such example is a watch presented by Benjamin Franklin to his secretary and nephew, Jonathan Williams.
An English gold paired case watch given by Benjamin Franklin to his nephew Jonathan Williams that sold in a February 2007 for $36,000.
Eighteenth century America was home to some watchmakers but in most cases it was less expensive to buy a pocket watch in England and have it shipped to the colonies. Some American watchmakers had the cases for movements made in England.
The real birth of the American watch industry came with the introduction of interchangeable machine-made parts. The first truly successful manufacturers and marketers of pocket watches were E. Howard Watch Company in 1858, and Waltham Watch Company, 1850. They succeeded in the business of providing reliable watches at an affordable price. Others manufacturers soon followed suit and America began making more pocket watches than the rest of the world combined. Some of the more prominent companies included the Hamilton Watch Company founded in 1874 and the Illinois Watch Company founded in 1869. These watchmakers developed the higher end of the world market, with elaborately decorated and bejeweled watchcases.
Pocket watch collectors have Abraham-Louis Breguet to thank for some of the most important developments in watch horology, such as the perpetual calendar and the shockproof parachute suspension. Arguably the most famous European watchmaker, Breguet’s watches were not just the best precision timepieces of their era, but some of the most beautiful works of art, albeit in miniature. Breguet produced such wonderful works of art that his creations were being forged while he was still alive and producing watches.
Military pocket watches are another important category of collecting. While watches made specifically for military use are primarily a 20th century product, keeping time in the military has always being considered important and most officers kept a pocket watch at hand. Military pocket watches often were presented to officers by grateful citizens, fellow officers or enlisted men.
Some collectors look exclusively for gold closed-face or “Hunters Case” watches. Others seek beautifully decorated cases. The range of niche specialties in pocket watch collecting certainly is not limited, and neither is the cost range. Collectible pocket watches can be purchased for as little as a few dollars to as much as several hundred thousand dollars.
About the Author:
Kentucky native Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Article research by Ted Sunderhaus.
Sources for More Information
Watches by Cecil Clutton and George Daniels, 1965, Viking Press, New York
Complete Price Guide to Watches, edited by Martha Shugart, 2002, Cooksey Shugart Publications Cleveland, TN.
Military Timepieces, by Marvin E. Whitney, 1992, AWI Press
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